Pavel (Grigory Dobrygin) and Sergei (Sergei Puskepalis) are clearly already getting on each other’s nerves from the outset of Alexei Popopgrebsky’s fine Russian film. This would be no big deal, if they weren’t the only human inhabitants of a meteorological station on a remote island somewhere within the Arctic Circle. The walrus meat diet, solitude and repetition would test most relationships, but dilettante college graduate Pavel and taciturn veteran Sergei were never going to see eye to eye, and, we are reminded, this is an environment where personality clashes can get you killed….
While Sergei has disappeared for a few days on an impromptu fishing trip Pavel accepts an emergency message concerning the older man’s family. But when Sergei returns, Pavel, through some combination of fear and weakness, avoids passing on the bad news, setting up a time bomb that will eventually result in conflict between the two, a war in which, typically, no war is declared, escalating into desperate and murderous behaviour on both sides.
Pavel’s inability to simply relay the bad news seems at once baffling and completely understandable. Living in the moment, listening to sludgy Russian rock through his headphones, playing video games, he is clearly used to a world where you can run away from your problems until they blow over; he has not realised where he is and what that means. The landscape, the polar bears and weather are more of a threat to life and limb than Sergei, who seems at one with the territory, who thinks in the long, long term, having adjusted to the island’s patterns years ago. The island is most definitely the third character in this drama. Popobgrebsky used the possibilities of digital cameras to shoot loooong takes of changing weather and light in real time throughout, and has captured a mysterious and inhospitable place, of solid fog banks, mountains of loose rock, frozen seas, and everywhere the remains of long-abandoned attempts at human habitation and relics from the cold war, a graveyard of human ambition.
How I Ended this Summer has all the makings of a more conventional cat-and-mouse thriller, and may disappoint anybody who wants, or has been led to expect that kind of film, but it’s a subtler, more surprising and nuanced piece of work than that. It’s a film about character where dialogue has been stripped to the bone, where body language and gesture speak volumes, and the fractious relationship of distrust and lousy communication rings wholly true. It’s a film about temperament and time and territory, clearly shot in arduous conditions in a bleak and breathtaking landscape.